Holding myself accountable (Petroleum junkie, part 3)

A view from the train on one of my recent commutes.

The deal with resolutions is that we tend to start off full speed, full of enthusiasm and, well, resolve. Before long, however, both enthusiasm and resolve tend to wane.

Last month, in large part in reaction to the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster and my increasing awareness of abuses perpetuated by the petroleum industry, I resolved to decrease my own personal dependence on petroleum. I followed up with a list of specific actions, and specific goals. Among other things, I had committed to tracking much of our fuel consumption.

Part of why I am sharing these details here is to maintain my resolve. I will cut down on my fossil fuel consumption. But the will may need continued prodding.


Tracking electricity usage was painless, thanks to my electric company listing kilowatt hour usage by month for the past 12 months. Tracking was painless, but the results were painful. I thought we were more moderate electricity users, but we are on the high end for our region. Our usage for the last 12 months averaged 921 kwh per month. While the average US household uses 920 per month, our state only averages between 500 and 618 kwh. (The second number is from a spreadsheet available from this site with usage by state.)

While I haven’t yet measured the electricity usage of specific items, I have rounded up the following suspects: lights and fans left on unnecessarily, and electronics. I think our past tendency to leave our stereo/home theater receiver on was a drain. We also have a lot of computers, including one large one that has been acting as a server, for a while for John’s work, but mostly as our electronic media repository. We have now gotten into the habit of turning off stereo and video equipment when not listening/watching, and John has set the server to power down at night. We have become more vigilant about turning off lights, fans and air conditioners when we leave rooms, as well.

The good news is that our usage is showing a downward trend. Our July statement showed 854 kwh compared to last July’s 946, a decrease of over 9%. June showed a 20% decrease over last year. (I have no idea why our usage was particularly high last June. 1063 kwh. It wasn’t air conditioning, as that was a cold and rainy month. What on earth were we doing? Giving each other electric shocks?)

I finally got around to signing up for one of my electric company’s renewable energy options. I have yet to get a bill showing the new rates. The cost by wattage will increase, but I’m hoping that our efforts to reduce usage will offset this. We shall see…

Heating oil

Tracking heating oil was more annoying, as I had to go through my bills month by month. (There’s no summary of deliveries.) Deliveries are also somewhat irregular, in both timing and amount, so when I found that I was missing a statement, I couldn’t really guess how much oil was delivered that month, or be certain that oil was even delivered that month. I finally came across the missing bill (helpfully mixed in with phoebe’s art papers), so have added that to my spreadsheet.

While I haven’t found great sources it looks like the average US household using heating oil uses 730 gallons per year, and in the Northeast US is 822 gallons. It looks like we have had 785 gallons delivered to our home in the past 12 months, which puts us slightly lower than the average for our region.

I can’t tell yet how much our usage is changing, but I think I have reduced my hot water usage. The real chance to improve, though, will come in the winter. With that in mind, I have contacted a company that makes storm windows that may work for us, which should significantly reduce the winter draftiness of our house.


Gasoline was the hardest of the three to track, since we don’t tend to file our receipts. I did go through our credit card statements for the last year, and logged all gas station transactions. I only have dollar amounts, not gallon amounts, but this at least gives me a general sense of frequency of filling the tanks. My sense is that we have filled them frequently. I haven’t really worked out the estimates of how frequently yet.

I’m happy to say that I have taken the train to work much more often. This is easy to track, as I bought a 12-ride pass on June 8th, and have used all 12. Each of those saved me about 35 miles of driving. I’ve even gotten a second 12-ride pass. In fact, due to slower summer schedules, I’ve only needed to drive into work maybe 3 times in the last couple months. (Plus there have been a few trips for recreational reasons.)

Other stuff

I have been doing pretty well with buying local food. I found a place to buy eggs that is only a couple of miles from us, and finally found a farm stand within 10 miles of our house. (I just don’t understand how local produce can be so hard to find in such a rural area. Gah!) We also managed to go blueberry picking a few times at the place down the road…before they abruptly closed for the season. (No!)

I have been doing a good job with reducing our use of new plastic containers. I have used my stainless steel water bottle regularly, and (aside from when I was travelling) have only resorted to buying bottled water a couple of times.


There. That’s the skinny on my recent efforts to reduce my fossil fuel gluttony. If anyone has actually read this far, you deserve a prize. Like maybe a big, fat virtual hug from me.

trying to cut down (Petroleum Junkie, part 2)


That’s the goal I’ve set for myself for reducing my personal usage of petroleum products and other fossil fuel gluttony in the next few months. 10%.

Living where I live, working where I work, I can’t stop driving. We can’t completely change our home heating needs. It’s unlikely that we’ll be able to cut out plastics entirely without major lifestyle changes.

But I’m determined that I won’t keep going as I have been. I’ve worked with vague goals and good intentions for a long time, but I’m not getting all that much closer to breaking my addiction. I need a specific goal, with a concrete number. Like 10%.

I’ll start with things that I can easily monitor: home electricity use, heating oil, and gasoline. I’ll check our bills for the past year for comparison. For gas for the cars, I’ll have to make a rough estimate of consumption, as I haven’t saved all of our receipts. (I intend to keep better track now.) For other things, like plastic use, I’m still planning to make changes, but I may be less able to estimate a number.

Seeing as I probably won’t get reach the 10% goal immediately, I’ll set a deadline. Let’s say by the end of 6 months. Oh, hell. Let’s say 3 months for electricity and gasoline use. By the end of September. For heating oil the real test will be the winter. For each month, I’ll have to evaluate more-or-less based on the month of the previous year.

Below I’ve broken down my plans into short-range and longer-range ones, and I’ll tell you a bit about what we do now.

The starting point
I don’t know our actual usage is yet. We are a family of 4, living in an 8-room house with drafty 20-year-old windows and an oil furnace for heat and hot water. We use lots of electric appliances and electronics, do lots of laundry¹. We have 2 window air conditioners that we use in the summer, and living in New England, we use heat several months of the year. We drive a fair amount: we live 9 miles from public transportation, 3 to 8 miles from stores and services, 20 and 45 miles from our workplaces. Most of our friends live far from us, and our families are even further. We buy food and beverages in plastic packaging, and the kids have lots of plastic toys.

Efforts we already make/have made:

  • We drive small cars. (mileage in the 26-30 mpg range)
  • We often work from home
  • We use the window air-conditioners fairly sparingly (we don’t have central air)
  • We replaced most of our lightbulbs with compact fluorescent bulbs
  • When we had to replace our furnace, we chose a more fuel efficient one
  • Our washing machine, dryer and dishwasher are energy efficient models
  • We use reusable bags for groceries, and increasingly, other shopping
  • I consider packaging when shopping, and favor goods with less plastic.
  • We reuse the plastic bags and containers we do get as much as possible.
  • I try to buy local produce
  • I get much of the kids’ clothing second-hand
  • we recycle plastics
  • We do other kinds of recycling, composting, reusing, and reducing that probably add up

Short term plans:

  • Check last 12 months for electricity, fuel oil, and gasoline usage
  • monitor current usage
  • make better use of informational resources like the ones from my electric company
  • buy more local goods: goal of 50% of produce for summer/fall
  • Select electric company provider which uses renewable energy sources
  • adjust our usage of…

    • Check to see what is plugged in or turned on that needn’t be
    • Turn off lights/don’t turn them on
    • Get better nightlight for bathroom and/or hallway (we leave a light on for Phoebe at night)
    • Line dry more clothes (goal of 1 load in 4)
    • Change temperature of fridge
    • better monitor use of air conditioners

    heating oil:

    • Use only cold water for laundry under ordinary circumstances
    • Time my showers, and reduce time and/or temperature
    • turn down the heat in the winter, especially at night and when we leave the house
    • be less lazy about weatherizing our windows, doors and other draft sources


    • Take train for at least some commutes (at least 1 in 4)
    • avoid using the air conditioner in my car
    • better combine trips for recreation and shopping/errands
    • have occasional family train trips rather than driving for recreaction/visits

Mid-range plans:

  • get programmable thermostats
  • Replace windows or get storm windows
  • consider getting ceiling fans installed
  • Evaluate purchasing habits

Long-term plans:

  • Move closer to public transportation (as well as closer to work & friends)
  • Investigate alternative heating and cooling methods, such as geothermal and solar
  • Get a more fuel efficient car: hybrid or electric (I’m determined that the next car we buy will be one–I’m liking the Leaf)
  • Grow some of my own food

Other green choices I can make along the way:

  • Buy gas from companies ranked higher for social responsibility. (The ranking page has been updated, by the way. Sunoco is still highest ranked, and Hess is next. BP is now near the bottom. Near the bottom mind you–there are still companies that rank lower!)
  • Take the stairs more at work and in public buildings (I need more exercise anyhow!)
  • Invest in green technology
  • Paint my house green.²

I know that these things aren’t enough³, and I don’t plan to limit my efforts to my personal use. I plan to take actions in the public sphere as well: by speaking out in support green energy initiatives, through grassroots organizations and voting. I will support stricter regulations in the oil industry. I intend to participate in bringing about greater energy conservation and awareness in corporate and industrial environments.

This has been a follow-up to my post Petroleum Junkie⁴. If you made it this far, you might also be interested in several recent posts at Momcrats: Where do we go from here?, Baby, You Can Drive My Car., Where Do I Go From Here? A List of Proactive Steps and Planes, Trains Automobiles & BP Boycott: All a Red Herring.


¹ Loads of it, even.
² Just kidding.
³ You may have noticed that I haven’t set any goals as far as reducing my air travel. I noticed that, too. I just can’t go there right now. But I promise not to buy a private jet.
⁴ Sorry this post is so long. I’m very wordy. I’m trying to cut down.